Heather Tierney-Moore OBE is chair at Supply Chain Coordination Limited, and is on the board of Priory Healthcare. She was previously CEO of Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust and has 25 years’ experience as an executive and over 10 years’ experience as a non-executive. Here, she shares her golden rules as chair, what makes a good (and bad) non-executive, and gives her tips for aspiring non-executives.
Looking back on your career, are there any moments that stand out to you as defining moments on your journey to where you are today?
I used to believe that I loved taking risks and being “in the thick of it”, pushing boundaries. But I went on a leadership programme whilst I was working as one of the first Macmillan breast cancer nurses in the country. This programme taught me that I didn’t actually take any risks — I managed the risks to such an extent that by the time I did step forward, there wasn’t much risk left. I realised that if I was going to make strides forward in my career, I’d have to take risks — and not manage them all out.
Are there any golden rules that you tried to follow as a chair or non-executive?
- Everybody’s voice matters. Not everybody can formulate their views and respond rapidly, so you need to ensure that everyone’s had a chance to digest the information and formulate their thoughts and questions. Don’t assume that someone has nothing to add just because they’re quiet — they’re likely to be deep in thought and may offer great insight if you give them the chance.
- Spend more time thinking about the future than looking back at performance. The first thing I did as chair was change the structure of our meetings. We now have a much more concise look at performance at the beginning, and getting more focused papers was key to this. The result is that we now have much more time to look forward and plan our strategy.
Since you’ve become a chair, is there anything you’ve learned that you wish you’d known before taking on such a role?
I learned a lot during my time as an executive by working with some fantastic and some not-so-fantastic non-executive colleagues, so the opportunity is there to learn before you become a non-executive yourself. Looking back, I don’t think I understood as well as I could have that as an executive you have the value and power of great answers, whereas as a non-executive your value is in asking great questions. I’ve seen a number of executives who, once they transition to a non-executive role are unable to cease being executives. Typically, they will go far too deep into operational detail in a way that isn’t necessarily helpful, and will tell before they understand — as a non-executive you might have fantastic expertise but you’ve got to really understand the issue before offering your insight.
At the other extreme are those who are extremely passive and don’t ask any questions; they aren’t challenging in a constructive way, and therefore aren’t really doing their job. Everyone around the board table should be invested in the organisation’s success. We aren’t there to unjustly criticise, look clever, or just sit there quietly: we’re there to help as part of the team.
The best non-executives I’ve worked with have been able to triangulate data points and build pictures up that make connections across the agenda. Although individual non-executives are recruited for their own particular expertise, ultimately everybody is responsible for the whole enterprise, and if you’re only looking at your bit then you will inevitably miss the bigger picture.
Do you have any tips for anyone looking to move from being a CEO or executive to being a non-executive?
I would absolutely advise that they look for some trustee or pro bono non-executive work if they feel they have the capacity alongside their role as an executive. This is invaluable, and it makes you a better executive as you will be able to better understand the perspective of non-executives, and thereby work better with your own non-executives. It’s also a brilliant way to build up and practice the skills of a non-executive.
If you are looking to shift towards a non-executive portfolio and move from the executive roles, I think you need to appreciate that it will be a massive transition. If you just decide to dive in you most likely won’t do it as well as you could; by their very nature, transitions like this are painful and it’s important to recognise that uncomfortableness and ultimately become comfortable with it. You can do this by preparing well, and reflecting on the behaviours of non-executives you have worked with — what was helpful? What was unhelpful? By reflecting on this beforehand you ensure that you won’t slip into bad habits, even if you find some of your fellow non-executive colleagues might have them. You will be well prepared to offer insight and constructively challenge as a great non-executive.